Stephen Tumim

Stephen Tumim was born in 1930 and educated at Worcester College, Oxford where he read history.

He was called to the Bar, Middle Temple in 1955 and was a circuit judge from 1978.

In 1987 he was appointed HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales by the then home secretary Douglas Hurd. He was asked to serve a further term by Kenneth Clarke.

He is author of Great Legal Disasters (1883), Great Legal Fiascos (1985) and Crime and Punishment (1997). He died on 8th December 2003.

I interviewed him in 1993 when he was rarely out of the news. A rather attractive figure I found him easy to converse with.

Here is the full text of my interview.

In 1987 you were appointed as Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons. How exactly did this come about? 

Having had a retired ambassador as a chief inspector, the home secretary of the day, Douglas Hurd, thought it would be interesting to have a judge. He wanted somebody who would be objective and bring out what was actually happening in the prisons, not a civil servant, and not anybody connected with prisons. When he asked for a judge, the Lord Chancellor’s office sent along a number of criminal judges from the Old Bailey, but they were found to be too established in their views, and so he asked for a judge who did civil work, and the poor chap got me.

Before then you had been a circuit judge. Looking back, does that now seem to have been an unexciting time in comparison? 

No. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the jobs I’ve done, including being what was in effect a county court judge, and it was also a very good training for my present job. I’d been working in North London mostly with poor people, and then I moved in the mid-1980s to become president of the mental health tribunal where I dealt with whether or not people should be discharged from secure mental hospitals like Broadmoor. All that was a very useful background to looking at prisons which contain another category of unhappy people. Of course this job is undoubtedly much more interesting – it would be nonsense to say otherwise.

And more powerful… 

Actually I have no power at all. I may have influence, but I don’t have power. My job is simply to advise ministers on English and Welsh prisons. I also advise the Northern Irish secretary on his prisons, and the Foreign Office ministers on British Caribbean and Bermudan prisons, but if they don’t like my advice they don’t have to take it.

As someone who has worked in civil law, your knowledge of criminals and prisons must have been severely limited. Did you come to see this as a strength rather than a weakness? 

I think it is a strength. I don’t entirely go along with the awful English cult of the amateur, which suggests it’s best not to know about any problem you’re dealing with, so that you have classical scholars looking at finances, and so on. That doesn’t really work, but I do think it’s an advantage to have somebody who can ask basic questions, which is what I do in my job. I’m the only inspectorate which is not led by somebody who has worked in the field: the Chief of Constabularies is a policeman; the Chief Inspector of Social Services has worked in social services; the Chief Inspector of Probation is a probation officer. The problem with that is the obvious one – that you’ve known Charley for 30 years and you make allowances. That sounds awful but it’s inevitable to some extent, and also you don’t ask the fundamental questions because you don’t think about them so much. What is important in a lay inspectorate such as mine is that you have professional advisers who include very experienced prison governors and civil servants.

In an article in the Political Quarterly you said that your two main qualifications for the job were your layman’s status and your independence. You were independent in the sense that you were not inspecting former colleagues, but some people might question whether a member of the judiciary can be fully independent… 

I don’t think that anybody has ever really challenged my independence. Being a judge is a great psychological help in this matter; people still accept in this country that a judge is independent.

Were you a complete ingénu, as it were, about prison conditions…was it something you had ever turned your mind to before it became your brief? 

No, never. I’d only once been in a prison, a visit to Wormwood Scrubs arranged by a friend of mine when I was first appointed a judge.

Effectively you were given a licence to criticize. Did this appeal to you? 

Yes. It would be very boring to be a cosmetic type of inspector in which you simply told everyone they were doing a jolly good job. The home secretary specifically made it a basis of my job that I should be prepared to make public criticism if there was something that merited it. And this also applied to public praise. It seems to me they go together.

After your first two visits to Pentonville and Liverpool you said you could not understand why doctors and probation officers and chaplains were not making what you called ‘furious complaint’ about the degrading and punitive conditions. Did you ever discover why they hadn’t made furious complaint? 

When I first went round those places I came back and told the then permanent secretary that it was quite extraordinary that there were no lavatories or sanitation or washing facilities except very obscurely and then for only part of the day. I told him I didn’t understand it. He thought it was it was lack of imagination and I think perhaps there was a certain truth in that. If you’re used to something, if you work every day as a chaplain, or a doctor, or a dentist, you don’t notice the stains on the wallpaper so much. You become blinkered. There was also a feeling that nothing could be changed; it had gone on beyond human memory. My approach to this job, like all jobs, is fairly pragmatic, so I said I wanted a plumber and an architect and a researcher to look into the question of sanitation. Within a year we produced a plan whereby there were five different methods of getting lavatories and drains into prisons. The cost of doing it was quite moderate, about £40 million for the whole of England.

But what were the main feelings prompted by your findings? Outrage, shock, a sense of shame perhaps? 

It was the first time that prisons had received public attention in this sort of way. Ten years ago television court drama always involved a barrister in a wig cross-examining somebody…nowadays it’s all porridge and prisons and the clank of gates. I’m exaggerating of course, but essentially I think that public interest has grown. My reports attract press interest in a way they didn’t when I started. There’s a change of mood, and people are much more concerned about prison life.

But did it ever occur to you that perhaps your reaction was an over-emotional one…if not, why hadn’t other professionals reacted in the same way as you did? 

It’s never over-emotional to get angered by dirt and squalor; in fact it’s highly desirable. The reason the other professionals didn’t was that they’d lived with it too long.

But what about your predecessor? 

He was a very distinguished man who wrote extremely elegant and well argued reports. He didn’t bring them to public attention so much. He was establishing a new institution of public inspectorate and he took the view, which I’m sure was right, that you have to get credibility within the system before you can usefully go public.

Is your philosophy regarding prison reform ideological, or is it more pragmatic and utilitarian? 

Goodness me, what a question. I suppose it’s much more pragmatic and utilitarian, though that may be in itself ideological. I have always taken the view that we have to ask a very fundamental question: what are prisons for? To me their purpose is to reduce the rate of crime. I’m not interested in making florid declarations; I’m more interested in cutting down the number of burglaries. The next question you have to ask is what sort of people go to prison, and it is clear that the numbers of terrorists, rapists, mass murderers are very few. The great majority of prisoners are young men between 18 and 30 who have both failed at school and failed with families; they are not in a real sense educated – a surprising number of them are more or less illiterate. They’re the young men from the estate who haven’t got a job because they’re tiresome and ill-educated and there aren’t jobs for them, and the offences they’ve committed are essentially involved with drink, drugs and motor cars. The way we deal with them seems to me to be perfectly clear, if perhaps a little boring: we have to train them, give them social education, encourage them to talk to their families. The prison’s statement of purpose is firstly to hold them safely and securely, secondly to treat them with humanity, and thirdly to help them to lead law abiding and useful lives. The purpose is not to punish them – that’s for the judges.

But anyone advocating improvements in prison care will come up against the deeply ingrained attitude in our society of punishment and revenge. The appalling conditions in some of our prisons are seen by a great many people as fitting conditions for criminals to serve their term. How do you get beyond this attitude? 

You have to apply education to the public here. Because an attitude is ingrained, it’s not necessarily irremovable. Of course if you read the leaders of certain newspapers, they say bang them up, but that is not a universal attitude. There are other moods, and I’ve always found when I’ve addressed audiences of all political persuasions, a great deal of sympathy and understanding of the approach I advocate, which is let us try and reduce crime.

Is it simply a matter of education, do you think, or is there something more deeply entrenched in the British approach which it would be very difficult to remove? After all it is only a few years since Lord Whitelaw was talking about the ‘short sharp shock’ treatment and there is still a great deal of evidence in the present government of a punitive approach… 

I think it is largely a matter of education in the sense of getting people to understand the problems. If you lock somebody up for 22 hours a day in a cell – something which is still happening occasionally – he’s going to come out a complete mess and he’s going to commit more crime. The bad prison is the one in which the prisoner is lying on his bed in the middle of the day; the good prison is one where the emphasis is on activity. I’m not interested in the nice or the nasty prison – those seem to me to be sentimental words which we shouldn’t play around with. The prison should be neither a holiday camp nor a medieval dungeon. The ideal role model is one which is as near an industrial works as possible. Prisoners should work in good workshops for eight hours a day, earning roughly the industrial wage which would be paid, not by the taxpayer, but by the company who wants the goods. They could then pay tax, they could pay rent for their cells and their food, they could support their families which would reduce the social security round, and they could learn how to work which is something of which many of them have no experience. I’ve looked at some German prisons recently where this happens and it’s very effective, and I would welcome that sort of approach here. To say, oh let’s just lock them up and throw away the key is an argument of despair and sentimentality in my view.

This government, perhaps more than any other in recent times, has been seen to target the victims in society, the most vulnerable – unmarried mothers, single parents, and so on. Is the political climate conducive to implementing the kind of reforms you are advocating? 

One’s got to remember this government has been in power for a great many years. At the moment there are certainly people in the government who feel that things have gone too far one way and it’s time the pendulum swung back a bit. But having said that, I think it’s a perfectly valid time to push and press for the active prison. If I were suggesting that prisons should be nice cosy soft places, the government would be quite right in refusing to pay me any attention. But I don’t notice any conflict of a serious nature between myself and the people I advise.

You have dismissed criticism of an excessively lenient approach to prisoners by saying that your first concern is that they should be prepared, after serving their sentence, to take a proper and useful place in society. But doesn’t that give the message to the criminal that the consequences of crime are really not very serious, at least for the criminal? 

I don’t think it does at all. Firstly, nobody except the occasional madman thinks that prison is an attractive proposition. I’ve never met a prisoner who committed his crime thinking, well, it will be rather nice to get into prison. Prisoners absolutely hate being deprived of contact with their communities, their families, their girlfriends, so that the idea of prison as a nice place or not is simply a long way from reality.

Professor Eysenck, the distinguished psychologist, has argued very persuasively that punishment is an extremely powerful deterrent, and that those who argue otherwise have never really studied the evidence or are at the mercy of their prejudices. How do you respond to that? 

Punishment is a very important part of the battle against crime, but it’s a part that’s played by the courts and not by the prisons. It’s the job of a judge to take into account the need for punishment when he deprives a prisoner of his liberty, and it’s a perfectly proper and necessary part of it, so I’m in no way against it. I’m in no way against the existence of prisons either. But does punishment deter? That’s a very difficult question and Eysenck is very much in the minority among academics on this issue. Of course it might deter you or me from nicking a piece of jewellery if we thought we were going to be locked up in Wormwood Scrubs, but the evidence suggests that it is not a very satisfactory general deterrent. Deterrence is one of the weakest parts of a justification of punishment. If you look at the period of English history with the greatest rise in crime, it was the period of the Younger Pitt, who vastly increased punishment. He created something like 200 new capital offences, but the crime rate continued to rise. I believe that prison is for cutting the rate of crime, and that prisoners on the whole are ignorant and rather lost foolish young men who need to be taught how to behave. I am continually coming across prisoners who say things to me that show they’ve really got no idea at all of the difference between right and wrong or what they ought to do, and I suspect nobody has ever told them. We’re facing a long term failure in our education system and I have a great deal of sympathy for the prison service which has all the time to act as guardians, as teachers, as parents in a way.

Eysenck also says that we have precisely the wrong psychological approach to the problem of crime, in that when a youngster commits a crime we caution him and tell him in effect that if he does it again he will be in real trouble. When he does it again he is told that the next time he will really be punished, and so on. Eysenck argues that this is a way of conditioning criminals to believe that crime actually does pay. What would you say to that? 

I would say that modern research completely disproves it. We know that on the cautioning system used by the police in the last few years, 80 per cent of those cautioned do not reoffend. We also know that something like 80 per cent of boys in their teens who are sent to young offenders’ institutions are committing the same sort of crimes and being caught within two years. The young offenders’ institutions cost infinitely more in my view are infinitely less effective with the majority of boys. There’s always going to be a minority who are very difficult, but Eysenck is simply wrong on the facts as found in our society at the moment. Cautioning has been an enormous success, and there has also been a fall-off in crime by young offenders. The increase in crime is fairly specialized and relates to older criminals.

Do you believe there is a correlation between the crime rate and what might be called social deprivation – unemployment, bad housing, and so on? 

It seems to me that it’s quite impossible to say otherwise. The great majority of prisoners come from the inner cities, from poor deprived areas. They don’t come from South Kensington.

How do you account for the fact that during the Depression and before the welfare state when people were seriously undernourished and there was real hardship, there was very little crime? 

I think we glorify that period unduly. Firstly you’ve got to tie it in with the efficiency of the police in catching people. With modern methods it is rather higher than in the 30s. Secondly I think you’ve got to look at the changes in behaviour, not just in England but in the western world. Also we must never minimize the significance of drugs which have had an enormous effect on crime. I recently looked at a prison where 65 per cent of the young men admitted that they were habitually on drugs, hard or soft, and there must have been many more who were actually on drugs but didn’t want to say so. It is an enormous problem.

In your idea of the model prison each cell would have a toilet and a television set and there would be properly paid work and education and so on. How do you answer people who say that conditions for prisoners would then be better than for a great law-abiding people in society? 

If you’re going to reduce the crime rate it may be that you have to put more resources into dealing with some tiresome young man than you would into somebody who isn’t tiresome. On the face of it it isn’t wholly fair, but on the other hand if it stops old women being raped and houses being broken into, it seems to be valuable and worthwhile. A great deal of what the present home secretary is proposing is based on the idea of carrots and non-carrots – privileges if they behave well and non-privileges if they don’t. There is a lot to be said for this approach if you’re running a prison.

But unless you improve the quality of people’s lives on the outside, which is after all such a long term business, you cannot be surprised at least that many will point to the injustice and inequity of raising the standards of our prisons… 

You’re not going to improve the living standards of people outside unless you reduce crime. Short of executing all offenders, what do you do with these young yobby criminals unless you educate them and teach them how to behave? We all know people who have been mugged in central London, just walking about their ordinary proper business, and it’s that situation I want to stop. I don’t know any way of doing it except by taking the offender in hand and training him in some way so that he won’t do it again.

After the publication of your report on Dartmoor in 1992 the Daily Telegraph leader criticized it: ‘The trend towards table lamps for rapists commands little or no support outside the ranks of professional prison reformers.’ I suspect you might label that kind of remark as a cheap gibe based on ignorance…would you? 

I’m not a professional prison reformer. It’s not my job to reform the prisons; my job is essentially to advise ministers on what’s going on. I also advise them on what can be done about it, but I’m not in the position of a prison reform trust or one of those organizations that exists to change things for the sake of change. I have very frequently disagreed both publicly and privately with those organizations who take an extreme view saying, for example, that we oughtn’t to have prisons at all. My report on Dartmoor was very critical because I thought the government was wasting huge sums of money in rebuilding a prison in the middle of Devon where everybody is actually very law abiding. I would have abandoned Dartmoor, and the only reason I didn’t recommend abandonment very strongly in that report was that we had spent something like £30 million before I went there. Besides, if you followed the line which the Daily Telegraph appeared to be taking, I think you would get more crime, and this seems to me to be undesirable. A great many people take the view that prisoners should have everything made nasty for them, one way or another, but it is philosophically wrong to imagine it will deter criminals. It may be that in Saudi Arabia you can reduce the rate of pilfering by cutting off the thief’s hands, but if you simply make it insanitary, dull and solitary, then you will increase the crime rate and not reduce it.

Do you think capital punishment is a deterrent? 

I don’t know. My objection to capital punishment is that there is this frightful risk of executing the wrong person. A murder is a one off sort of offence, and those who commit murders are usually in such an emotional state that they’re not thinking in terms of what’s going to happen to them afterwards.

Your inspection of Dartmoor was carried out in June 1991 and the report was complete in October 1991. Why then did the Home Office delay publication for eight months? 

I’m a profound believer in incompetence rather than conspiracy – probably they hadn’t got enough people doing the right job, something of that sort. I have no reason to think my report was held back through a desire to conceal.

Some people have suggested that the report on Dartmoor was a bit of a fudge in that if you had had your way it would have been closed down completely, but that would have invalidated the government’s investment in a refurbished programme. Was there any truth in that? 

There’s a great deal of truth in that. I don’t accept it was a fudge, but I have to look at things pragmatically and realistically. They’d spent a huge sum of money on improving this rather sad damp prison and common sense made it very difficult to recommend closure after £30 million of taxpayers’ money. I think they were entirely wrong to spend the money, but again it was probably an act of incompetence rather than conspiracy. Those who authorized the money at that stage were not the same people who were looking overall at what the prison service needed.

Would you not agree that your reports have been very demoralizing for the prison staff who have to cope with conditions as they are, conditions that they did not create themselves? 

No. On the whole the prison service has given me a great deal of support and they see my reports as an opportunity to give a wide currency to issues they want raised. We tend to work together rather than hostilely. Obviously there are times when I criticize prison staff, but I would do so only as a good judge after putting the case to them and hearing their explanation.

Do you think Douglas Hurd had any idea when he appointed you of how sweeping you would be in your criticisms? 

Douglas Hurd would have welcomed it. Indeed I have spoken to him informally more recently and he regards my appointment to have been a thoroughly good thing.

Were you perhaps surprised to be reappointed? 

I’ve always had a very good working relationship with ministers. Incarceration is a rather grey area, and to have an objective and independent person is of great use to ministers. Also when I recommend, for example, 10,000 lavatories, it enables the home secretary to go the chief secretary of the Treasury and say that he wouldn’t suggest spending money on this sort of nonsense himself, but the chief inspector is calling for it.

Would you consider yourself to be something of a thorn in the government’s flesh? 

Not in the least. I see myself as a critic of sloppiness wherever it may be, but in my report on the Brixton escapes, for example, I specifically said that they resulted from local errors and that ministers should not be blamed.

Obviously you have to strike a balance between criticism and encouragement, but some would argue that you have not always got this balance right. For example, a few days before the Strangeways riot you report was published congratulating the staff on the improvements they had made. Was that not terribly embarrassing? 

[laughs] No, I don’t think it was. I have a theory which is rather like the French Revolution: just when things are going along quite nicely you get a riot. Once you start improving conditions, that is the moment you have to watch for a disturbance. The governor of Strangeways at the time was busy dividing the prison up into smaller groups, and I think I was right to congratulate him, though I must admit I did look rather silly when a few weeks later there was this colossal disturbance.

It has been suggested that you were unhappy with the government’s response to the Strangeways riot, and although you accepted the decision to appoint Lord Justice Woolf, you did not think he should have been allowed to conduct such an extensive inquiry into prison reform which you regarded as your job. Is there any truth in that? 

No, there’s no truth in it. I told the then home secretary who asked me to conduct the enquiry that it would not be proper for me to do so immediately after my report. At that stage Lord Justice Woolf was perfectly correctly brought in. He wanted to widen the enquiry and asked me to join him so that it was in effect a report by both of us. We had various advisers, but we were the two principals, and I would accept him as the more principal of the two because he was senior in the legal world and he also had the advantage of being an outsider.

You seem anxious not to be linked with any of the prison pressure groups. Why is that? Aren’t your aims and ideas similar? 

No, they’re not. The job of the Howard League, the Prison Reform Trust and many other admirable organizations is to improve the living conditions of prisoners and to reduce the use of prisons. Those are entirely different objectives from mine. My job is pragmatic; theirs is much more based on dogma.

How do you avoid being perceived as ‘do-gooder’ – perhaps in the Lord Longford tradition? 

[laughs] Devoted as I am to Lord Longford personally, I don’t share all his views. I do think it’s better to be a do-gooder than a do-badder on the whole, but I don’t see myself as a doer at all; I’m an adviser, and my job is to form a judgement of what I see. Each of my reports is as subjective as I can make it – it’s the sort of thing one might do if one were conducting an enquiry as a judge, which indeed I am.

It was reported in the Independent in 1991 that a leading figure in prison reform had broken ranks to say: ‘The problem with Stephen Tumim is that he does not listen to prisoners. He would not make them citizens by giving them rights which could be enforced through the courts. Instead every change he would like to see would be imposed from above.’ How do you respond to that? 

I think it’s complete nonsense. I do in fact always listen to groups of prisoners without anybody else present and I take very seriously what they have to say. I also have a large correspondence with prisoners, I listen to their complaints and follow them up.

We apparently lock up more people than any other country in Europe but this does not seem to stop the crime rate rising. Isn’t this perhaps too difficult a problem to leave to the politicians? 

But who else is going to look at it? It is a difficult problem, and I suspect we do have a culture which means that the length of imprisonment in England is probably too long. There have been some very interesting experiments in Germany where they’ve reduced the length of incarceration without increasing the crime rate.

You once allegedly got into trouble for saying that three quarters of the men in prison should be freed and the rest should never be released. That remark may have been incautious but was it based on an honest opinion? 

The weakness of that remark is that it’s a bit of a cocktail party remake, it’s a bit epigrammatic, and epigrams are never very sensible. It’s obviously not wholly true but it has an element of sense about it. There are a few desperate criminals who are on determinate sentences and have to be released at some stage, and who could indeed be a menace. On the other hand, I suspect there are a great many people who could be safely let out.

Your work by its very nature is controversial, your reports provocative. Is this an aspect you enjoy? 

I hope they are controversial. If they did not prompt discussion there would be no action, but I hope I never slant a report to make a sensation. I’m not worried by controversy if it’s inevitable. And I do enjoy my job. It would be quite intolerable to do something one didn’t enjoy.

But do you never long for the comparative calm of the divorce courts? 

[laughs] I think divorce courts are far more stressful than prisons.

You have something of a reputation as a bon vivant – you’re a member of the Garrick Club, and so on. Isn’t there a fundamental irony, some might even say an indelicacy, that a man like yourself should be reporting on people who for the most part are at the other end of the social spectrum? 

I think it’s a very happy and fortunate balance. If I spent my entire life lurking around the grey world of the landings, it would not be of value and my work would suffer. It’s very important that you should lead a life outside your specific work.

Our legal system is currently in crisis and the reputation of British justice has suffered heavily as a result of terrible mistakes. Do you still defend the system which you were once part of? 

I’m still part of it in the sense that I’m still a judge; I’m paid as a judge, and I will in due course get a judge’s pension. There are obviously a lot of weaknesses in the legal system, and as the years go by I get further and further away from the real darts and arrows of the legal system and therefore less able to produce useful judgements. But in my view all institutions are rather conscious of their weaknesses…

But what about the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six? How could such appalling miscarriages of justice happen within our legal system? 

Miscarriages of justice are in a category by themselves. I think it’s very proper that the Royal Commission on criminal justice has said that there really must be some external body, rather like the inspectorate of prisons, because without that even the most honourable can get into trouble. I have no axe to grind, but I do believe we have the best lot of senior judges we’ve ever had, certainly during my career. As for those who came before, it is impossible in an individual case to form any judgement if you haven’t read the papers properly and don’t know the facts.

But it was proven that there were miscarriages of justice. 

Yes, but it doesn’t necessarily prove that the judge did anything wrong. There were expert witnesses who were criticized, police officers who were criticized, counsel who were criticized.

Judges and their sentencing policy attract a great deal of criticism…are you one of the critics? 

No, I’m not. I’m not saying they’re all correct, I’m just not one of the critics. If I were the chief inspector of judges I would go and sit in court and watch and listen and look at the papers. If you don’t do that I think it’s very unfair to form judgements.

Your previous work experience, apart from the courts, has been largely for charitable and literary organizations was it a bit of a culture shock to move to prison inspection? 

Yes, it was. Also a bit of a smell. But I’ve managed to join up some of my interests. For example, I’m chairman of the Arthur Koestler trust for the exhibition of art by prisoners, I’m involved with several other trusts dealing with art produced by mental patients, and so on.

Looking back on your life, what would you say were the triumphs and disappointments? 

I don’t know that I could claim a triumph on anything, but the things I’m most proud of having been in the prisons, particularly the progress of sanitation. I’m also proud of the fact that I have inspired and got going the removal and replacement of three prisons in the British Caribbean. In other words, it’s not so much ideas as bricks and mortar. Regarding the second part of the question, I’ve had a life without very great disappointments. There have been the obvious battles of life, the greatest of which has been having children who were born deaf. That has been a problem which my wife has mastered much more than I have; I haven’t done nearly enough for them, and I feel sad that I didn’t make a bigger contribution to them when they were young. But they turned into perfectly admirable people.

One response to “Stephen Tumim

  1. Naim
    A really wonderful man. I knew him slightly.